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Buffalo Soldier finally promoted to general: Army's first Black colonel commanded Ft. Huachuca a century ago

Col. Charles Young, who died in 1922, promoted to brigadier general during Black History Month

The U.S. Army's first Black colonel, Charles Young, died a century ago after serving as the commander of Ft. Huachuca, but was just recognized with a promotion to brigadier general.

Young, an officer in the segregated regiments known as the Buffalo Soldiers set up after the Civil War, was posthumously promoted last week from colonel to brigadier general. A ceremony to be held this spring will honor his military career, which includes his time as the commanding officer of the Southern Arizona fort in 1917.

En español: Soldado Búfalo asciende a general: el primer coronel negro comandó Ft. Huachuca en 1917

The Kentucky native, born in 1864 to enslaved parents, became the first Black colonel in the U.S. Army in 1916 after leading Buffalo Soldiers from the 10th Cavalry against Mexican revolutionary figure Pancho Villa and his forces. Young had success in military intelligence as the first Black military attaché and was the first Black national park supervisor, overseeing what are now Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

The U.S. Department of Defense approved Col. Young’s promotion in November after Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear sent a letter last year to President Joe Biden encouraging the honor. The governor had already promoted Col. Young within the Kentucky National Guard in February 2020.

“As we strive to end the racial injustices that persist to this day, we must recognize the contribution that those like Charles Young made to the successes and freedoms that we enjoy as Americans,” Beshear wrote. “I believe him to be more deserving of this rank and support his promotion posthumously to major general.”

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) also requested a promotion for Young, according to the Defense Department.

The Army waited until February to make the promotion, timing it with the start of Black History Month. A ceremony scheduled tentatively for April will take place at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., where Col. Young was the third Black graduate.

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Young has been memorialized throughout the country since his death in 1922 at the age of 57. He died in Nigeria, but his remains were repatriated in1923 to Arlington National Cemetery, where he’s since been joined by his wife, Ada Mills Young, who died in 1953. He was inducted into the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame in 1999, and the home where his family escaped slavery in Ohio is now part of the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument.

NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois knew him personally and said his life was a “triumph of tragedy,” for Young's ability to constantly overcome prejudice and insult.

“No one ever knew the truth about the hell he went through at West Point. He seldom even mentioned it. The pain was too great… He lived in the Army surrounded by insult and intrigue and yet he set his teeth and kept his soul serene and triumphed,” Du Bois wrote in 1922, before Young's body was returned to the United States. “Steadily, unswervingly he did his duty. And duty to him, as to few modern men, was spelled in capitals. It was his lodestar, his soul; and neither force nor reason swerved him from it.”

Du Bois said Young's fellow West Point cadets protested him taking food before white cadets and that white officers with lower ranks refused to salute him. However, “seldom did he lose his temper,” Du Bois said, and he would “seldom complain.”

'A triumph of tragedy'

Young’s father, who joined the military only months before the end of the Civil War, encouraged Young to attempt the entrance exam for West Point. Despite earning the second-highest score, Young was denied entrance until the candidate ahead of him dropped out. The 20-year-old Young left his job of two years as an elementary school teacher to become the ninth African American to attend the military academy.

He spent 28 years in the U.S. calvary and gained attention for his success as a leader during the punitive expedition against Pancho Villa, which followed Villa’s raid of border town Columbus, N.M., in 1916.

Young was a commanding officer with the 10th Cavalry of the Buffalo Soldiers, an all-black regiment, when they followed 150 Villistas more than 500 miles into the Mexican state of Chihuahua. There, the cavalry attacked enemy troops with rifle fire until Young led a mounted pistol charge. The Villista forces retreated with no losses to Young’s group.

Calvary led by Young were also able to rescue white U.S. cavalry troopers a few weeks later. The Mexican government forces had attacked American soldiers also pursuing Villa. The 10th Cavalry rode out as reinforcements and were later able to broker a truce with the Mexican side. 

Young rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel after his victories in Mexico, and a year later, became the commanding officer of Ft. Huachuca until late 1917. By that time, he had also had success as an intelligence officer, a role that sent him to the Philippines, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Liberia, mostly in the diplomatic role of a military attaché a few years after the start of the modern attaché system in 1889.

He was a polyglot, fluent in Latin, Greek, French, Spanish and German. He helped produce maps of the terrain in Hispaniola for military reconnaissance and supervised the construction of new roads and lines of communication in Liberia. He was on a research expedition to Lagos, Nigeria, as an attaché when he became ill and died.

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Earlier in his career, he oversaw the construction of roads and other infrastructure that helped lead visitors into the Sequoia and General Grant National Parks, which are now Sequoia and a small section of Kings Canyon National Parks. The U.S. military had been responsible for protecting several national parks before the creation of the National Park Service in 1916.

'Denied the stars of a general'

The Army medically retired Col. Young in 1917 for his high blood pressure and Bright’s Disease, which may have been caused by “black water fever” he caught while in Liberia, according to Du Bois. He was the highest-ranking African American in the Army at the time and only one of three Black commissioned officers. Instead of retiring at the age of 54, he rode more than 500 miles on horseback from Ohio to Washington to show his ability to lead Black cavalry troops in Europe during WWI.

The National Park Service has since dubbed the effort "Colonel Young's Protest Ride for Equality and Country." More than 380,000 African Americans served in WWI, the park service notes, but Young’s request was denied. Two years later, he was recalled to active duty to again serve as an attaché in Liberia, where he spent the last few years of his life.

Du Bois, in 1922, criticized the Army sending Col. Young to Liberia, saying it was “suicide” and Young, his wife and friends knew it.

“He had been sent to Africa because the Army considered his blood pressure too high to let him go to Europe! They sent him there to die. They sent him there because he was one of the very best officers in the service and if he had gone to Europe he could not have been denied the stars of a general,” Du Bois wrote. “They could not stand a Black American general. Therefore, they sent him to the fever coast of Africa. They ordered him to make roads back in the haunted jungle.”

For his services in Liberia, the NAACP awarded Col. Young the Spingarn Medal, which has recognized outstanding achievements by African Americans since 1915. He remains the only member of the U.S. military to have received the award.

“He is dead,” Du Bois wrote. “But the heart of the Great Black Race, the Ancient of Days — the undying and eternal — rises and salutes his shining memory: Well done! Charles Young, soldier and man and unswerving friend.”

Col. Young’s birth cabin was restored in Mason County, Ky., in 2014, and Gov. Beshear also suggested in his letter to Biden that it be designated as a national monument, saying it would be “a substantial educational resource regarding Black history in the United States,” and that it “would surely be visited for generations to come.”

Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly spelled the last name of W.E.B. Du Bois.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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U.S. National Archives

A photo of Col. Charles Young, taken between 1917-1919, bears the caption: 'To us, colored fellow patriots, falls not our 'bit' but our best. We must perform our full duty. A part of that duty is to eat wisely and without waste in order to help win this world war. Yours for Race and Country, (signed) Charles Young, Colonel, U.S. Army.'


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